Joan Didion: Crème Caramel

There’s a picture of Joan Didion’s kitchen that found new life on the internet shortly after the writer’s death in December 2021. It’s from a shoot for Vogue in her Malibu kitchen—hanging wire mesh baskets of produce, bountiful in their easy availability, but meticulously sorted into groups: onions, potatoes, apples, oranges. The yellow light and painted ceramic herb planters give the whole scene a distinctly California quality, one with which Didion would become inextricably linked. It’s a snapshot that’s already slightly nostalgic as it’s taken, “a hologram that dematerializes as I drive through it” as Didion would say of her state’s changing landscape.

The photo could be seen as a predecessor of the popular social media fridge shot, where every meticulously organized crisper drawer is #fridgegoals and every labeled, color-coded tupperware suggests that no food is actually prepared here. But Didion’s kitchen wasn’t just for show. “She cooked nonstop,” said Eve Babitz, quoted in Tracy Daugherty’s Didion biography, The Last Love Song. Dinner parties, held at her and her husband’s house on Franklin Avenue in L.A., were legendary, complete with Spode china and placecards on the table. The guest lists could number in the hundreds, with Patti Smith or Janis Joplin turning up for Beef Wellington, made for a crowd.

The idea of cooking at this scale might make many of us blanch (or, at the very least, order in), but it was second nature to Didion. “She could make dinner for forty people with one hand tied around her back while everybody else was passed out on the floor,” Babitz said. Many of her recipes, released in a bonus cookbook for the documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, were scaled to fit the occasion. Her recipe for parsley salad, serving 35 to 40 guests, was not an aspiration, but a necessity.

But as Didion’s California changed over the decades, her cooking did too. As the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, moved away from the Sunset Strip to Malibu. And although there was still the occasional dinner party, food became less of an event and more of a daily practice, a routine. “After I married and had a child, I learned to find equal meaning in the repeated rituals of domestic life,” Didion wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking. “Setting the table. Lighting the candles. Building the fire. Cooking. All those soufflés, all that crème caramel … These fragments I have shored against my ruins, were the words that came to mind then.”

These routines became part of the Didion we would come to know through her work. Each day started with an ice-cold Coke before sitting down to write. In Blue Nights, we learn the process of packing school lunches for her daughter, Quintana Roo, an activity where no detail was spared. (Lunchboxes prepared by Didion included mini salt and pepper shakers for her homemade fried chicken.) And in Magical Thinking, after Donne’s death, we learn how Didion leans further on these food rituals in grief, eating only congee for days on end.

Daugherty notes that in one of Didion’s favorite books, Zen Mind Beginners Mind, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi sees this as cooking’s essential role: “To cook, or fix some kind of food, is not preparation … It is practice. … Work on it with nothing in your mind, and without expecting anything. You should just cook.” These fragments I have shored against my ruins. Cooking for Didion could be a public performance, but it was a private devotion too. The photos we see of towering croquembouches or epic Thanksgiving spreads on social media might be the image of cooking we’re most familiar with lately: the food of entertainment, or the food of celebration. But Didion helps us remember that it’s the cooking of the everyday that supports us, that heals us, and finally helps us become ourselves.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion reminisces about the early Malibu years, when she and Dunne and nearby friends would visit each other’s houses for dinner, swapping recipes and dreaming about opening their own restaurant. These weren’t the heady, salad-for-forty days of Franklin Avenue; they were a middle ground between performance and practice. When Katharine Ross contributed some vanilla bean, brought from her travels, “we did crème caramel with the vanilla for a while but nobody liked to caramelize the sugar.”

A recipe for crème caramel, maybe the one that resulted from this series of experiments, made it into the bundle shared by Didion’s nephew. It’s a wonderful one for refining your own cooking ritual since, as Didion notes, the sugar is tricky to get right—but the result of your practice is its own reward.

Adapted from Joan Didion’s crème caramel recipe

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
  • 3 whole eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 vanilla bean
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine 1 cup sugar with 1/4 cup water, stirring just until sugar is dissolved. Heat without stirring until the sugar has turned a deep golden brown, swirling the pan as needed if one spot becomes too dark. Remove from heat and immediately divide caramel among four 6-ounce ramekins, swirling each ramekin slightly to coat evenly.
  3. Beat eggs, egg yolks and the remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a heat-proof medium bowl. Set aside.
  4. Bring a kettle of water to boil.
  5. Heat milk and vanilla bean in a saucepan over medium heat. When just simmering, remove the vanilla bean and slowly stream the milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly.
  6. Pour the egg mixture over the caramel in the ramekins. Place ramekins in a baking dish and transfer to the oven; pour the boiling water into the baking dish, until it hits about halfway up the ramekin, being careful not to splash it into the ramekins.
  7. Bake 30-35 minutes, or until the custard is just set and jiggles but doesn’t ripple. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 12 hours, up to 2 days.
  8. Run a knife around the edge of each ramekin and quickly invert onto a plate to unmold.